Iran's presidential election puts new pressure on US nuclear talks

Iran's presidential election puts new pressure on US nuclear talks
© ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

The outcome of Iran's presidential election on Friday is likely to pose a significant challenge for the U.S. as it pushes Tehran to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal.

The Biden administration is intent on bringing the U.S. back into the Obama-era deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE exited in 2018.

U.S. officials have stressed that weeks of indirect talks with Iran in Vienna are proving productive and meaningful, but Iran’s presidential contest has loomed over the discussions.

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Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said last week that the presidential elections have “complicated” a lot of progress on reaching an agreement.

“We’ll see where everything goes,” she said during an event with the German Marshall Fund.

The front-runner in the race is hard-line candidate Ebrahim Raisi, head of Iran’s judiciary who was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2019 over human rights abuses including overseeing the execution of minors and the torture and cruel treatment of prisoners.

Raisi was also involved in the brutal crackdown of Iranian protesters during the 2009 Green Movement and participated in the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, according to the Treasury Department.

The U.S. would be unlikely to negotiate directly with Iran's president on the nuclear deal, but his victory would further embolden Washington critics of Biden’s rapprochement with Tehran.

“Raisi’s abhorrent human rights record, I think, will increase the price of diplomatic engagement for the Biden administration,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director with the International Crisis Group. “That’s inevitable. But at the end of the day, you negotiate with your enemies, not with your friends.”

Vaez said delisting Raisi from the U.S. sanctions list is a topic of discussion in the Vienna talks, citing his conversations with American and Iranian negotiators, but that the Biden administration is unlikely to take that step.

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“The U.S. had said at the beginning of these negotiations that it would keep sanctions that are not inconsistent with the JCPOA, and that includes sanctions on human rights violators in Iran,” Vaez said.

Reached for comment, a State Department spokesperson said, "We do not discuss the details of diplomatic discussions."

Iran’s other top presidential candidate, Abdolnaser Hemmati, is described as a technocrat who previously served as governor of Iran’s Central Bank.

President Hassan Rouhani, who has served for the past eight years, is prohibited from seeking a third term.

The Iranian president holds little authority in a system where decisions are ultimately made by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But experts say Raisi’s ascent is nonetheless a worrying development for international engagement.

“This election in my view, is less about the personalities and more about process,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow focused on Iran issues with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Khamenei is in the process of cementing a legacy, making a meaner and more aggressive Islamic Republic, one that will be more repressive at home, more aggressive abroad and will be led by a constellation of revolutionaries at the helm of a series of different political positions.”

Khamenei's tacit approval of the 2015 JCPOA marked a signature foreign policy achievement for Rouhani.

But Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018 hardened positions against working with U.S. officials.

“It’s very likely that Iran is using its very public political competition as a way to tip the scales on the nuclear negotiations, that things can get worse over time,” said Taleblu. “This is part of Khamenei’s strategy of graduated escalation, to raise the risk of things getting worse over time to get more concessions up front.”

Khamenei has insisted that the U.S. lift all sanctions before Tehran returns to its commitments under the deal. The Trump administration imposed an estimated 1,500 sanctions since 2018.

U.S. officials have said they are prepared to lift sanctions on Iran that are “inconsistent” with the terms of the JCPOA, but a question remains of how they handle additional penalties that are levied against Iran for terrorist activities, its ballistic missile program and human rights abuses.

The administration last week lifted sanctions on three former Iranian government officials and two companies involved in the oil industry, saying a “verified change in behavior” triggered relief. 

State Department spokesperson Ned Price rejected suggestions that the sanctions relief was related to the JCPOA talks.

“There is no connection,” he said in a briefing with reporters.

The administration views returning to the JCPOA as the best way to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions — which Tehran maintains are for peaceful purposes.

But Iran has increasingly breached terms of the agreement since 2019, a year after Trump exited the deal, by increasing its stockpile of nuclear fissile material and restricting access to international nuclear inspectors.

“We have an interest in putting that nuclear problem back in the box,” Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBiden walks fine line with Fox News Blinken to travel to India, Kuwait next week Biden announces delegation to attend Haitian president's funeral MORE said in a hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. “Because an Iran with a nuclear weapon, or with the ability to produce fissile material in very short notice to get one, is an Iran that is going to be an even worse actor in terms of its impunity in all of these other areas.”

Republican lawmakers are firmly opposed to the U.S. reentering the nuclear deal, arguing it fails to prevent Iran from ever achieving a nuclear weapon and does not address its human rights abuses, support for terrorism, proxy fighting forces and ballistic missile program.

“Do not rejoin the JCPOA,” Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tweeted last week, in response to reports that Iran was shipping weapons to the U.S.-sanctioned government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

Risch, along with 21 GOP colleagues, introduced legislation last week that would require any renewed nuclear deal to receive congressional approval before it can be implemented. The bill is unlikely to advance in the Democrat-c-controlled Senate.

Jordan Steckler, a research analyst with United Against Nuclear Iran, said the GOP opposition increases the Biden administration's negotiating leverage with Iran.

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"It establishes the GOP in a 'bad cop' role similar to that which Iranian hardliners play," he said, adding that it also puts pressure on Biden to find common ground with his critics. "The previous agreement was discarded by the Trump administration, so subjecting a new accord to congressional review and preferably requiring it to be ratified as a treaty would ensure its durability beyond the current administration."

U.S. officials say they are moving closer to a deal with Iran.

The negotiating team, led by U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, has pushed forward through six rounds of talks since April and indicated progress has been made.

But the clock is ticking on announcing a breakthrough to avoid a setback in negotiations that is likely to come with the inauguration of a new Iranian president, likely in August.

“I’m afraid if the deal is not restored by August, by definition there needs to be an interregnum,” said Vaez, of the International Crisis Group.

“A return to the JCPOA might become a moot question,” Vaez said. “At that point the parties would probably have to negotiate a new nuclear deal.”